Sunday, January 16, 2011
AFC playoff Q&A: Jets' next challenge
By John Clayton ESPN.com
Early last week, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan read to his defense the stats of Tom Brady's last few playoff games.
Brady's quarterback rating in last season's playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens was 49.1. In the Patriots' Super Bowl XLII loss to the New York Giants, it was 82.5. Brady's rating in the 2007 AFC Championship Game against San Diego was 66.4.
"All he had to do was read the numbers,'' Jets linebacker Bart Scott said of Ryan. "[Brady's] touchdown to interception ratio [five touchdowns to six interceptions in the past three playoff games] was high. We looked at our roster and knew we had all the playoff experience, and they had a young roster that was only used to last year's butt-whipping by Baltimore.''
You get the feeling, following Sunday's 28-21 divisional playoff victory in Foxborough, the Jets respect the Pittsburgh Steelers more than the rival Patriots. The regular season is one thing, but Brady's recent playoff numbers didn't scare the Jets. Scott and his Jets defensive teammates spoke in glowing terms about Ben Roethlisberger, who takes hits and is hard to get off his game. The Jets' defenders, however, felt they could rattle Brady with blitzes and hits.
"No quarterback likes to get hit,'' Scott said.
Brady was hit numerous times Sunday, and even though he threw for 299 yards, he was sacked five times and threw a rare interception. Starting Monday, Ryan and the Jets' defense will concentrate their efforts on stopping Roethlisberger in the AFC title game.
Here are the 10 biggest questions heading into next weekend's game.
Ben Roethlisberger has established himself as one of the greatest playoff QBs of his generation.
1. What is the significance of Roethlisberger's appearance in the AFC Championship Game?
If Roethlisberger beats the Jets and eventually gets the Lombardi Trophy, he will earn his third Super Bowl ring, tying Brady and giving him two more than Peyton Manning. The Manning-Brady battles dominated the 2000s. Both are locks to be first-ballot Hall of Famers. Roethlisberger might not be able to put "HOF" next to his name yet, but three Super Bowl rings would let him enter the conversation. He's only 28 years old. What's amazing is that he's 9-2 as a playoff quarterback. Manning has been in the playoffs in 11 of his 13 seasons, but his record is 9-10. Putting it in more perspective, there are only five quarterbacks since 1980 who have more playoff wins than Roethlisberger -- Joe Montana (16), Brady (14), John Elway (14), Brett Favre (13) and Troy Aikman (11).
2. What will be a big storyline AFC championship week?
The return of wide receiver Santonio Holmes to Pittsburgh. Holmes was the MVP of the Steelers' Super Bowl XLIII victory over Arizona, but off-the-field issues led to his trade to the Jets in April. Once the Steelers knew Holmes was going to be suspended for violations of the league's substance abuse policy, they called every team in the league. The Jets offered a fifth-round pick, a ridiculously low value for a No. 1 receiver. Holmes caught 52 passes for 746 yards in 12 games as a Jet and had six touchdown receptions. His replacement in Pittsburgh, Mike Wallace, has become one of the big-play stars in football. Holmes caught six passes for 40 yards in the Jets' 22-17 victory at Pittsburgh in Week 15.
3. Which Steelers receiver will go on Revis Island?
Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, perhaps the league's best man-to-man specialist, said he was assigned to Hines Ward during the first meeting against the Steelers. Ward was targeted only three times in that game. He caught two passes for 34 yards in a game in which Roetlhisberger threw 44 passes. "I'm not sure what we will do this week,'' Revis said. "I will cover who I'm assigned.'' Revis covered Deion Branch on Sunday and limited him to five catches for 59 yards. This championship game has extra meaning for Revis, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh in Aliquippa, Pa., and went to college at Pitt.
4. Have the Steelers circled their calendar for this rematch against the Jets?
Not really. This isn't much of a rivalry -- yet. The Jets went into Heinz Field on Dec. 19 and beat the Steelers, 22-17. The Jets took control of the game in the second half. The Steelers took a 17-10 lead with a 2-yard touchdown run by Rashard Mendenhall in the third quarter. The Jets countered with a 66-yard drive, capped by a Mark Sanchez 7-yard touchdown run to tie it. The game ended strangely. Nick Folk gave the Jets a three-point lead with a 34-yard field goal with 10:07 left. The key play in the fourth quarter was a slow-developing handoff to Steelers halfback Mewelde Moore in the end zone. The shotgun handoff was stopped by linebacker Jason Taylor for a safety that gave the Jets a 22-17 lead and possession of the ball. There may not be as much venom from the Steelers as there would have been had the Patriots advanced. The Patriots embarrassed the Steelers 39-26 in a Sunday night disaster on Nov. 14. Still, the Steelers will want some revenge against the Jets, knowing a Super Bowl is on the line.
5. What's the recent history between these two teams?
There isn't much. These teams met once in 2010 and once in 2007, before Ryan joined the Jets. Eric Mangini coached that 2007 Jets team, which won that game 19-16 in overtime. They met twice in 2004, with the Steelers winning both times -- 17-6 in the regular season and 20-17 in the divisional playoffs. Three of these four meetings were in Pittsburgh.
Jets return man Brad Smith has another week to rest his injured groin.
6. What's the injury situation for both teams?
Both teams are in good shape. Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith (torn triceps muscle) recently returned to practice, but still isn't ready to return to action. Safety Troy Polamalu has been playing despite a sore ankle that stems from an injury to his Achilles tendon. Right tackle Flozell Adams was bothered by the flu and had to miss a little time Saturday night. Tackle Jonathan Scott was banged up and may miss practice time this week. Cornerback Bryant McFadden is bothered by an abdominal injury. Linebacker James Harrison injured his wrist Saturday, but the injury was minor. Jets wide receiver/kick returner Brad Smith sat out Sunday's game with a groin injury, but he has time to get healthy for next week. Nickel cornerback Drew Coleman (knee) played the entire game. Scott was banged up late in the fourth quarter, but he was able to return after one play. Overall, injuries shouldn't be a big factor in this championship game.
7. What will give the Steelers extra confidence in this meeting against the Jets?
Polamalu will be back. The Steelers rested their Pro Bowl safety in that Week 15 game with hopes of getting him back healthier for the playoffs. With Polamalu inactive, Sanchez completed 19 of 29 passes for 170 yards, and the Jets rushed for 106 yards. Polamalu is a force in creating turnovers, helping to stop the run and disrupting the quarterback. Ryan had a great quote about Sanchez, who is 4-1 as a playoff quarterback. "He's just getting better,'' Ryan said. "One day he's not going to be looked at as a weakness of the team and someday he will be looked upon as a strength.'' Polamalu is the one player who can make Sanchez look bad.
8. How have officials been calling games?
There were 15 penalties in the Ravens-Steelers game, but officials are basically letting teams play in the playoffs, which is a good thing. There's been a noticeable drop in holding calls. During the regular season, the umpire (the official who calls most of the holding penalties), lined up in the offensive backfield, giving him a better view of holding infractions. During the regular season, holding penalties increased from 1.84 to 1.99 per game compared to last season, but the holding calls dropped in the last couple of weeks of the regular season, going from 31 in Week 15 to 25 in Week 16 to 21 in Week 17. Only six holding penalties have been called in eight playoff games. There were four games, including the Pats-Jets contest, in which no holding penalties were called. Penalties, in general, have been down during the playoffs, with 82 in eight games.
9. How important is home-field advantage in the AFC title game?
Very important. The home team in the AFC Championship Game is on a four-game winning streak, the longest winning streak since a five-year stretch of home wins between 1987 and 1991. There is a similarity with this stretch and that 1987-1991 stretch -- great quarterbacks. Manning won championship home games in 2006 and '09, Brady did it in 2007 and Roethlisberger did in 2008. During that five-year stretch during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Elway and Jim Kelly won two championship home games each and Boomer Esiason of the Bengals won one. In other words, it's tough to beat great, Hall of Fame-caliber QBs when they're playing at home and a Super Bowl berth is on the line.
10. Who's going to win?
The Steelers have the advantage. Roethlisberger is playing well. The defense allowed only 62.8 yards a game against the run and could make the Jets one-dimensional. The Steelers should win a close one, 20-14.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.